Boston University President John Silber Dies At 86

John Silber, long-time president of Boston University, passed away on Thursday at his home in Brrokline, Massachusetts at the age of 86.

Silber, who died from kidney failure, was president of Boston University for 25 years, and set a hard-nosed example of how a school can be elevated in a hurry, though he lost a close election for Massachusetts governor, reports The Washington Post.

The 86-year-old championed high academic standards and was a scholar of the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was president of BU from 1971 until 1996, and served as chancellor until 2003.

During that time, the university went from a lightly regarded commuter school to a major research institution, despite its closeness to Harvard University and the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, stated:

“He was notoriously difficult and prickly and outspoken. But his legacy was an extraordinary institution that wasn’t there before. [Dr. Silber was] one of the best-known and most visible college presidents of the last 50 years.”


The New York Times notes that his daughter, Ruth Silber-Belmonte, confirmed his death. John Silber was born in Texas with a withered right arm, into a family of strict Presbyterians, who never told him of his father’s Jewish forebears, or even of an aunt gassed at Auschwitz.

Silber fought battles throughout his life, from taunting bullies when he was young, academic rivals as a University of Texas professor, and also with restive students, professors, and alumni at BU.

The BU president raised endowments at the school from $18 million to $422 million, and also raised research grants from $15 million to $180 million, balancing the budget each year as well. He raised tuition at the school to Ivy League levels, tightening admission standards. Despite this, enrollments still climbed from 20,000 to 30,000.

Boston University president John Silber is also survived by daughters Rachel Devlin, Martha Hathaway, Judith Ballan, Alexandra Silber and Caroline Lavender, along with son Charles Hiett, brother Paul, 26 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.